The focus in meditation? The eyes have it.

Should my eyes be open or closed during meditation?

This is easily one of the most common questions asked about meditation techniques. While meditation is a personal practice and there are no rules written in stone, there is a reason for my answer…

It’s best if your eyes are open.

Look at the picture above. That is a statue of the Buddha. You’ll notice the eyes are open.

This is part of the traditional meditation posture of Buddhist practitioners, known as the Seven Point Posture of Vairocana.

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A brief summary of all 7 points.

The Buddha's eyes show his focus in meditation.
Click to see the larger image. (His eyes are open.)
  1. The back (i.e. from nape of neck to the small of the back) should be made as straight as possible – like an arrow or like a pile of coins.
  2. The legs should be crossed in the vajra or bodhisattva posture.
  3. The hands should be folded, 4 fingers’ width below the navel (not resting on the feet), the elbows slightly out. The shoulders are held up and back (‘like a vulture’)
  4. The chin should be tucked in slightly, ‘like an iron hook’.
  5. The eyes should be relaxedly looking into space, at nothing in particular, somewhere about 16 fingers width in front of the nose.
  6. The tongue should be held against the upper palate.
  7. The lips should be slightly apart, the teeth not clenched. One breathes through the nose.1

Remember, a Buddha made of stone doesn’t mean it’s a rule written in stone.

However, apparently there are specific benefits for your focus in meditation if you keep your eyes open, with a heavy gaze, looking 16 finger widths in front of your nose. Do I know those specific reasons? I’ll be honest, no I don’t. You and I can both search the interwebs for the rationale if we wish, but I’m here to talk about my experience of this gaze.

When I first started meditating, like most westerners I chose to close my eyes. But every once in a while I would try it with my eyes open. At first I couldn’t really feel any difference. (I would get drowsy regardless!). But when I began studying within my current school of Buddhism, I learned about the 7 point posture. Being rather anal and a stickler for details, I chose to adjust my meditation posture to keep my eyes open. (I’m still working on full lotus legs. I’m getting close!)

As I continued my practice with eyes open, my focus in meditation improved.

I haven’t closed my eyes in meditation in years. But not until today did I truly feel the connection created by the gaze in the 7 point posture.

When meditating I usually look past the tip of my nose and have occasionally tried to figure out where 16 finger thicknesses in front of my nose would put my gaze. Today I made it the primary focus of my practice. I held my right hand flat to my nose, fingers extended, then placed my left hand next to that. Then the right hand again and the left hand again, trying to keep the previous hand in place. Then I focused on the space just at the tip of my pinky finger of my left hand. Not AT my pinky finger, but at the space just beyond the tip.

Just like when focusing a camera, everything past that point was out of focus.

It’s a slightly cross eyed sensation.
I realized the key to maintaining my focus on this point in space is to remember what the out of focus background “looked” like and maintain that. It’s more of a feeling than a seeing thing, since the background is out of focus. In a way, you can focus on how out of focus something is.

Now if that’s not a Buddhist thought, what is?

It was surprisingly difficult to keep this focus in meditation. The first time I “found” that focus I was only able to hold it 5 breaths. The my eyes popped back into focusing on the background. The second time, 6 breaths. The third time I made it all the way to 11 breaths.

When I looked away after each session, everything around me looked more focused and “fresh”, like I was seeing it clearly. We all have a bit of tunnel vision the majority of the time. And we’ve all experienced moments when what our eyes take in is unclouded by our habitual patterns, internal thoughts or expectations. Times when everything is fresh, when we’re out of our heads and genuinely taking notice of the world around us. I was in that zone immediately after each of the sessions.

And if I may get philosophical here, that is part of the purpose. Your mindfulness increases when you have to focus on a very specific nothing. It’s like the zen riddle “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” There is no answer. This gaze quiets the constant internal dialog, almost resets you to a more quiet new normal.

There was a physical sensation, too. Now from my teachers I know not to get attached to any results, but the feeling was still very interesting. I felt two lines of “energy” connecting internally from my eyes to a point just above the center of my occiput (the base of the skull). I felt another “point” on the anterior of my coccyx (the end of your spine), the front of it, inside my pelvic bowl.

Don’t become attached to results. It prevents you from seeing things as they truly are.

I’m not saying that feeling either of these points mean anything, and as I’ve been taught, I won’t become attached to the results or expect that I’ll feel anything at all next time I focus on the gaze. But where the eyes focus in meditation has been taught for thousands of years and will now be a regular part of my practice until it becomes automatic.

Post script, as I’ve continued working on the gaze, I realize it’s another tool toward balancing eyesight.

How much have you focused on the gaze when meditating?

If you never have, try it and let me know what you experience in the comments below.


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Image of sitting Buddha courtesy The Narrow Way Book.

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